10 Alternative Ways to Cook a Thanksgiving Turkey
There's more than one way to cook your holiday bird.
Fires need stoking, potatoes need mashing, pies need baking, football needs watching, and turkey needs... well, what does a turkey need? Roasting? Grilling? Smoking? Spatchcocking? Deep-frying?
The truth is, there are too many ways to cook a turkey, and they all sound delicious... except for maybe boiling. We'll skip that one.
If you're in the mood to try something new this year, why not break out the deep fryer and have your turkey crispy? Or, if you're looking for that elusive uniform doneness, try the sous-vide method. Even if you're set on going with a traditional roasted bird, you should at least take a gander at these novel alternative methods for cooking a turkey.
Braised turkey doesn't mesh well with Thanksgiving tradition, which states that the bird must be a stuffed, golden centerpiece of the Thanksgiving table. But some cooks argue that hacking apart the main dish and braising it does the most to ensure moisture is retained in the meat—a crucial quality that so many recipes fail to address, given the natural dryness of turkey.
This method is popular with foodies, and it really gets to the heart of why so many of them take issue with Thanksgiving: They just don't like turkey, mostly because it's too dry. I happen to like it in all forms, but if you side with the skeptics you might want to try braising your bird.
Deep-fried turkey is a Southern tradition, and many foodies cling to it as the most delicious (and most deliciously unhealthy) way to prepare a turkey. Aside from the oily, greasy, artery-clogging goodness, it's also extremely quick.
You’ll want to use an outdoor cooker of some sort, perhaps a propane burner. (Seriously, don't deep-fry a turkey indoors.) Alton Brown of the Food Network recommends soaking it in a brine of kosher salt and brown sugar for 8 to 16 hours. As for the deep fry, most recipes call for peanut oil, but vegetable oil will also work. Just don’t burn yourself.
When you're ready to actually fry that sucker, you’ll be pleased to know that the actual cooking time is less than an hour; this means you’ll be able to devote more time to football and boozing.
Best Recipe: Alton Brown's Deep Fried Turkey (Food Network)
One of the best parts about grilling a bird is the extra space it frees up in the kitchen for baking casseroles, whipping up mashed potatoes, and chopping veggies. (It also gives all the men in the house something warm to stand around while chugging beers.) Kitchen capacity aside, some experts maintain that the crisp smokiness of grilled turkey beats the oven any day of the week.
Grilling does pose a few added challenges, though. For one, grills are less precise than ovens, so you'll need to keep an eye on both the grill thermometer (if you have one) and the meat thermometer (which is absolutely necessary). Meat tends to dry out faster on grills, too, and it'll be tougher to capture turkey drippings for your gravy. Some grills feature a holder at the front of the unit for this very purpose. Otherwise, get creative and fashion some sort of tinfoil mechanism, because you’re going to want those savory drippings.
Best Recipe: The Greatest Grilled Turkey (All Recipes)
Smokers allow you to be creative with some of the unique tastes that wood chips add, and you don't even need to season the bird beforehand, although we highly recommend it. Some cooks like to brine the turkey beforehand with unusual ingredients, such as wine, bourbon, or apple cider. And different types of wood will impart different flavors to the bird.
Unless you fancy building your own smoker, you’ll need to purchase one (water smokers are most popular for turkeys). Check out our guide for turning your old charcoal grill into a fully functional smoker.
5. Propped on a Beer Can
You sort of have to see this one to believe it. It involves steam-infusing your bird with beer (and, optionally, herbs) by shoving a partially full 24 or 32-ounce can into the cavity and using it as a stand. It's brilliant, obviously, and any way to combine beer and food is a worthy endeavor in our book.
The turkey is cooked on a large grill using indirect heat, with the beer-can stand ensuring mostly uniform cooking. The evaporating beer keeps the interior moist, and the herbs add flavor. In a sense, this method is like the perfect combination of grilling and smoking: You're using an indirect heat source, but at much higher temperatures than a smoker (usually around 350ºF).
And did we mention it's infused with beer? Just make sure you choose a decent beer—nothing too expensive, just not something like this.
Best Recipe: Beer-Can Turkey (Food Network)
As mentioned, there are a lot of challenges when it comes to cooking turkey. Uneven cooking temperatures and overly dry meat are the biggest among them. Spatchcocking solves both of these problems, as long as you do it correctly.
J. Kenji López-Alt, the wizard-king of internet cooks, has developed an obsession with the technique, to the benefit of us all. We even posted a more in-depth look at why you should consider spatchcocking this year.
Quite the gruesome ritual, spatchcocking involves butterflying the bird, removing the spine, and splaying it flat. This ensures even heating, but some experts go even further and propose flattening the bird with a brick during the roast. You’ll definitely impress some family members with this method. Just don’t screw up, and remember to enjoy the holiday.
7. Stuffed with other birds
The infamous, all-powerful turducken is a turkey... stuffed with a duck... stuffed with a chicken. That simple three-punch avian combo is enough to capture the imagination of anyone who has ever enjoyed eating a bird.
There are a million-and-a-half recipes, and a million-and-one ways to screw up this delicate culinary concoction. We recommend keeping it simple, especially if it's your first time making a turducken. But whatever your method, be patient—these take a while to cook.
Best Recipe: Chef Paul's Turducken (Chef Paul Prudhomme)
As we've mentioned, some folks don't like how naturally dry turkey meat is. I happen to believe this is best countered by simply drowning the sucker in gravy, but it's a legitimate complaint all the same. It can be difficult to get perfectly juicy meat without expensive, painstaking preparation.
If you're a dry turkey hater and don't mind a visual downgrade on your Thanksgiving table, consider making a turkey stew. It takes less time and is less perilous than oven-roasting, and the flavor possibilities are endless. Just make sure you back it up with the standard Thanksgiving side dishes.
Best Recipe: Stewed Turkey with Herbs and Onions (Epicurious)
9. Immersed in a water bath
We've reported extensively on the subject of sous vide cooking, and if you know how this method works you probably understand why. While expensive and time-consuming, sous vide (French for "under vacuum") ensures uniform cooking that's impossible to achieve with a grill, stovetop, smoker, or conventional oven. Because foods are vacuum-sealed, it also maintains flavors usually lost through smoke or runoff juices.
However, you'll need to invest in a vacuum sealer and high-precision, low-temperature sous-vide device (which heats a water bath to roughly 130-140ºF) to make sous vide a Turkey Day reality.
The low temperature also means the bird will take some time to finish. But hey: it's Thanksgiving! If you've planned well, you should have all day.
This may not be a substitute for a Thanksgiving turkey, but it's certainly a low-fat, long-lasting alternative to fresh-cooked turkey in general. It's really not too difficult to make, unless you go wild with spices, but a simple salt-and-pepper shower will do. Your jerky will last a long time and can be a healthy snack many weeks after Thanksgiving.
Best Recipe: Turkey Jerky (Mark's Daily Apple)
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